Self-Employed? Ask Peers for Feedback

In March I will turn 50. That does some things to my psyche, as I’m sure it does for most anyone facing the half-century mark in their lives.

It causes me to be a little sad that in the rearview mirror of my life, youth appears farther and farther away. It also makes me more determined to make the most of every day because, in many ways, these are the best years of my life — I’m more experienced, still learning, but hopefully wiser than I was at 20 or 30.

Facing down 50 also has led me to reflect on some questions, one of which is how I will spend the remainder of my career. I feel strongly that there is much more I can do, and should be doing, and that I need to broaden my thinking about what I have to offer a client, an employer, my profession, or perhaps an entirely different one.

One of the shortcomings of being self-employed for nearly 13 years is that I miss out on annual performance reviews. I believe I respond well to feedback; I try to use it as an opportunity to improve myself and my work. I do ask for, and sometimes receive, feedback from clients, but it is not the same as a formal performance evaluation like most corporations have.

So I recently asked a small group of friends and colleagues who know me and my work well to provide me with some insights based on that knowledge. I asked them to tell me what they believe to be my strengths and my shortcomings, and to think about other professions or occupations for which they believe I’m well-suited. The latter question is intended to open my thinking about what is possible, given my strengths and shortcomings.

The feedback has been exceedingly helpful and more interesting than I expected it would be. There were some themes among the responses that surprised me. The thing I appreciate the most is that the people on my little assessment board were honest and candid. They did not hold back, and in some cases they gave me some feedback that was difficult to hear but also specific and helpful. That is the best kind of feedback.

I encourage you — especially if you are self-employed — to conduct your own assessment exercise. You will benefit greatly from it. But if you do conduct one, keep these things in mind:

  • Ask for feedback from people you know will be candid and not just those who will sing your praises. This might include asking people who are among your toughest critics or with whom you find yourself frequently disagreeing in conversations, Facebook discussions, etc.
  • Ask for feedback from people who represent various aspects of your life — personal and professional.
  • Be ready to accept the feedback as valid even if you don’t agree with it and even if it makes you a bit angry or uncomfortable. You are asking people for their perceptions and assessments. If you trust them enough to ask for their feedback, then trust that they speak their truth.
  • Even if you don’t apply every specific piece of feedback you receive, open yourself to using it to help think differently. My assessors gave me some surprising ideas about professions and occupations in which they think I would thrive. While I might not pursue some of the specific ones they mentioned, it has caused me to think differently about what I do.
  • Resist the temptation to defend yourself. I found myself getting a little defensive about some of my feedback, but upon reflection realized that my assessors were being true to my request. I dumped the defensiveness in order to experience growth.



Social Media are Stressing Us Out!

As if managing the expectations of friends and family in the real world wasn’t enough, a study from the University of Edinburgh School of Business in Scotland indicates that the more types of friends we have on Facebook, the more stressed out we are.

Our anxiety increases because of the greater potential to offend someone, according to the study. Specifically, we’re afraid that our swearing, partying, smoking, drinking and engaging in other embarrassing or activities will be looked down upon by our co-workers, bosses, neighbors and parents.

“Facebook used to be like a great party for all your friends where you can dance, drink and flirt,” says Ben Marder, a marketing fellow at the university and the report’s author. “But now with your Mum, Dad and boss there the party becomes an anxious event full of potential social landmines.”

So, what is a Facebook over-sharer to do?

That’s what I talked about in an interview on the funny new weekly podcast, “Constant Crisis News & Opinion,” hosted by fellow communicators Chuck Hansen and Hamilton Holloway. (If you haven’t checked out their podcast, you should. As their tagline indicates, they poke fun at a world gone nuts, taking the ridiculous things we humans do and deconstructing them in an entertaining and often thought-provoking way.)

Chuck and Ham asked me to talk about how we can keep our sanity while continuing to be active on social media. As I said in the interview, it comes down to turning on that internal editor that social media have an inexplicable yet effective way of shutting down.  I confess during the interview that not many people overshare on Facebook better than I do. Some of my more introverted friends are horrified at the things I choose to share, though to me, crowd-sourcing my problems is cheaper than therapy.

Now, it’s not like I engage in risky or potentially career-ending behavior and post the evidence for all my 250 friends to see. But I do share my triumphs and heartaches, some of them quite personal, with my friends and family on Facebook — some of them professional colleagues. I don’t believe doing so has stressed me out, but I like to think I know the boundaries pretty well.

Some folks don’t think twice about posting what-happens-in-Vegas-worthy details of their lives and then wonder why their parents look at them disapprovingly at the next family dinner, or why they suddenly were disqualified to receive that promotion.

There’s more to the story than that, so go take a listen to the podcast. The entire episode is great, so if you have about 40 minutes to spare, grab a cup of coffee or listen to it over lunch like I usually do. If you’re pressed for time, or if you just can’t wait to hear what priceless pearls of wisdom Chuck was able to salvage from our conversation, jump to the 20:40 mark.


Feelin’ the Love

I’ve spent more time in the last 10 years going on dates than I care to admit. Let’s just say that it’s not easy to find that perfect match, and being a self-employed single dad in your 40s doesn’t make it any easier.

Although I’m happily matched with the right person now, dating is a brutal experience. Meeting someone to whom you’re attracted is just the beginning. Connecting with someone who shares your interests, values, aspirations and priorities is difficult. It’s even harder finding someone with a certain degree of shared life experiences and backgrounds. Even after all that, the other person might look great on paper, as they say, but then there’s that elusive, intangible quality that seals the deal: chemistry.

If you don’t have the right chemistry with the person you’re dating — or the person you’re married to — everything else is going to be an uphill struggle.

The same is true with jobs. Finding the right job is a lot like finding the right mate. You might be attracted to it, you might discover shared values, priorities and backgrounds. But if the chemistry isn’t there, it’s just not going to work in the long run.

Such is the case with a job I took in January. I left behind my 12-year-old consulting practice because I was lured by a position with a great company that I felt would put all my skills, talents and experience to work. It looked great on paper. It looked like the perfect match.

But the chemistry just wasn’t there.

I’ve spent hours agonizing over the reasons it didn’t work out, and there are many. I won’t go into them here, of course. But I can’t minimize the role of chemistry — that intangible quality which, when present, can lead to all sorts of successes and endorphin highs. And, when lacking, can leave you heartsick.

Mismatches happen to people in all types of businesses and at all levels. I worked at AT&T when the company spun off its manufacturing businesses to create Lucent Technologies. The woman at the helm of that spin-off was Carly Fiorina, a well-respected and successful executive. Later, she was hired as CEO of Hewlett Packard. It didn’t work out. Looked good on paper — a successful, driven executive from the technology industry who was used to working in tumultuous situations. I’m sure there were many reasons it didn’t work, but I’ll bet lack of chemistry was one of them. When the chemistry is lacking, there’s just not a lot you can do about it.

So I leave that brief return to corporate life behind. Like any failed relationship, I contemplate what I could have done differently, I think about what I can learn from the experience and I figure out what I can do to make sure the next endeavor is more successful.

And I’m returning to what might be my true love: independent consulting. I’m lining up projects, rebuilding my business, taking the lessons from the past and applying them toward a better future. My next match, whether that is a new client or, perhaps down the road, another employer, will certainly benefit from a more evolved me.


Baby Steps

I’m not a runner, but lately I’ve been pretending to be one in preparation for a local event, the Corporate 4-Miler. I’ve reached the ability to run two miles without stopping, which doesn’t sound like a lot for people who run in 10ks and marathons, but which is a major accomplishment for me.

As one of my Facebook friends reminded me, we all cross the same finish line. I’m not looking to set any records. I’m looking for the free beer at the end.

Earlier this year, my boss asked me to put some thought around manager/leader communication in my company. We want managers/leaders to be better informed so they, in turn, can communicate more effectively with the people they lead. I excitedly mapped out a plan for reaching the desired end state in which managers/leaders are well trained as communicators, where they freely share information with their people and engage them in meaningful dialogue.

My boss reminded me that what she was really looking for was some incremental steps toward that goal that we could take immediately. Ahh. That makes the task a lot less daunting.

To help guide my thinking in manager/leader communications, I bought a book called The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work. It’s written by a Harvard Business School professor and her husband, a developmental psychologist. They asked hundreds of employees in several organizations to keep diaries about what motivated them at work. One big finding was that while managers and leaders often believe recognition, incentives, clear goals and the like are the greatest motivating factors for employees, the thing that really gets people going is seeing incremental progress toward goals. People want to see the baby steps that get them where they want to be.

Of course, this suggests a significant communication role for managers/leaders. People want to understand the goals before them, they want to know where they fit in, and they want regular feedback on how they’re doing. They want this collaboration and communication with their bosses to be consistent and ongoing. Seeing incremental progress motivates people to be more engaged, productive and creative in their work.

Thunderstorms every day this week have kept me from being able to run outside. I had worked my way up to completing two miles, but not being able to see any progress this week has demotivated me. Kind of like a lack of communication from a boss. I’ll get back out there and pick up where I left off, but it’s going to be tough.


Jesus Wept. Enough Said.

My dad, who is a retired Baptist minister and an outstanding teacher of the Bible, asked me to substitute-teach his Sunday school class this week. Most of the people in his class don’t know me very well, so they are probably expecting that the Bible teaching skills of the father have been passed on to the son. They are sorely mistaken.

I’ve taken the task seriously, though, and have been studying and reading commentaries on the scripture passage, which is from John 11 in the New Testament. It tells how Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead.

I can’t seem to get to that part, though, because I’ve become fixated on one verse, John 11:35, the shortest verse in the Bible:  “Jesus wept.”

So simple, so elegant, so beautiful. And so packed with potential for great discussion. Why did he weep? Was it because the Son of God was experiencing human emotion over the death of a friend? Was it because of his disappointment in Martha’s questioning why he didn’t arrive sooner? Was it because he knew he would soon face death himself? And why did the people who organized the Bible decide to make those two words a verse unto themselves? What were they trying to say about it?

We don’t know. We only know that Jesus wept.

I keep thinking how communication can be so short and to the point and yet so powerful. It’s a beautiful thing. No extraneous words. No flowery phrases. Just a simple statement that, when taken in context, packs a punch.

As I discussed this on Facebook, my friend Steve Crescenzo observed: “What would corporate lawyers do with such a simple, beautiful sentence? After the approval process, it would look like this: ‘From a distance, it appeared that Jesus, or someone resembling Jesus of Nazareth, or a close relative of Jesus of Nazareth, appeared to have what could have been a foreign substance trickling out of his eyes, though it could have been sweat, as it was very hot that day, so there is no way to be sure.'”

If only Jesus could fight the corporate lawyers like he fought the Pharisees.


6 Not-So-Guilty Pleasures for Maintaining Balance

Today on Facebook I was bemoaning the fact that I had destroyed a week’s worth of running and working out with the slice of pizza I had for lunch. Several friends, bless their hearts, encouraged me by saying that all things should be done in moderation and a little self-indulgence now and then is a good thing.

It got me thinking about the importance of balance in life. Public relations executive is the 7th most stressful job in America this year, according to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health. Communication work of any kind fits in that category, if you ask me. We work to maintain relationships, to craft high-profile messages, to meet the needs of both our clients and our audiences, and we’re often called upon to smooth over the damage others do.

Recently I decided I need to get more regular exercise, not only for my physical health but also for my mental health. I’ve found that a good cardio workout is a great stress reliever, so I’m making the time for it several times a week.

But then I started thinking about other not-so-guilty pleasures that help me maintain balance in my life. (OK, one could argue that I’m not really so great at maintaining balance, but I’m trying to get better at it.) Here are the other things I do for myself fairly regularly. I share them to get you thinking about what you do, or could do, to balance out the stress of your job.

  • A glass of wine. Or maybe two. I’m a late-comer to the wine party. I didn’t drink any alcohol until I was in my mid-30s. But I’m so glad I learned to enjoy wine! In moderation, it can be good for you and it sure is fun to pair a good wine with dinner. I also enjoy a beer from time to time – on a hot summer day, at the beach, at a baseball game – but wine is my go-to adult beverage.
  • A cup of tea in the morning. Or maybe two. I’m not a coffee drinker, but nothing gets my morning started like a strongly brewed cup of English or Irish breakfast tea. It’s the only caffeine I get during the day, so I don’t feel too guilty about what it’s doing to my heart rate.
  • Dining at great restaurants. I can’t think of many things I enjoy more than taking someone to dinner, especially someplace with really good food. I’m fortunate to live in Richmond, Va., which has an unusually large number of great restaurants for a city of its size. The food, the setting, the atmosphere, the company – I enjoy it all and find myself a little sad when it’s time to leave.
  • Old TV shows. I don’t watch much network TV. Instead, I surf the channels looking for blasts from the past. I get transported back in time to New Rochelle in the 1960s (The Dick Van Dyke Show), Chicago in the 1970s (The Bob Newhart Show), or  Dodge City in the late 1800s (Gunsmoke). Before long, whatever was troubling my mind is gone, at least for a while.
  • Baseball games. Watching baseball actually helps me process things. It doesn’t require a lot of concentration, so my mind is free to review, analyze and resolve whatever is occupying it. I’m a New York Yankees fan since childhood, but I also enjoy going out to the park to see the Richmond Flying Squirrels play their brand of the game.
  • Bill Gaither. He’s a legend in gospel music, especially Southern gospel music. He’s also made a fortune by assembling multiple generations of gospel singers and musicians for “homecoming” videos. When I’m home on Saturday night, I catch one or two hours of these videos on one of those high-number cable networks. The music soothes my soul and often touches me deeply. And we all need our souls soothed from time to time.

Those are my not-so-guilty pleasures. What are yours?


Faith Gives Hope for Communicating with Passion

This weekend I said goodbye to one of my two best friends. I shared some personal thoughts about Faith Eury with my Facebook friends — who she was, how we became friends, why I loved her and what she meant to me. As I’ve thought about her over the last few days, I realize there’s something I can say about her life that is relevant to communicators, so I want to share it here.

Faith was a communicator herself. That’s how we became friends — she worked for a client I served as a consultant 10 years ago. A friendship blossomed, then deepened because of some shared experiences including a history of anxiety attacks. I had been through them before and tried to offer encouragement that she could overcome them. Social anxiety is more common than many people know and attacks can be debilitating.

Faith was an effective communicator because she could cut through extraneous information and get to the essence of a message. She was that way as a person, too. There was no fluff with her. She cut to the chase.

On a spring morning nearly three years ago, I took Faith to the hospital because her primary care doctor told her she needed to go right away and she shouldn’t drive herself. I stayed with her through a long day of examinations and tests that resulted in a diagnosis nobody wants to hear. She had Hodgkin’s disease, a blood cancer that is survivable with chemotherapy. She endured the brutal treatments with courage and grace.

But she did more than just endure. While still in treatment, Faith organized a team to walk in the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Light the Night event in Richmond, Va. Not only did she organize the “Faith’s Hope” team, but it raised the most money of any team in the walk. Over the next two years Faith would lead the team to raise more than $16,000 for blood cancer research. In addition, she helped coordinate events for the LLS and spoke to school groups and others about the importance of research to the fight against cancer. The LLS in Virginia honored her as its Volunteer of the Year in 2010.

All this from a woman who suffered from social anxiety.

Faith and her pal Henry

I’ve thought a lot about how Faith was able to pull it off. Where did she find the courage to overcome her fears and speak publicly about her Hodgkin’s disease? Why didn’t the prospect of getting up in front of total strangers paralyze her? Why did a woman who was intensely private open up her life to not only friends but people she did not know?

It’s because Faith was passionate about her topic. She lived it. She experienced it deeply. It was part of her. When she spoke or wrote about it, she was communicating from the deepest part of her soul.

We communicators can learn something from that. Yes, even in a business context, it’s possible to communicate with as much passion. In business we rarely communicate about life-and-death issues like cancer. But as we write speeches for executives, we can try to pull the passion out of them. As we interview people for a feature story on the company intranet, we can ask them questions that get at why they care about the subject, using real words instead of corporate-speak. We’re working with people, after all, who hopefully live life in a real way and experience things deeply. Sometimes I think we just don’t work hard enough to get to the essence of the message.

If a woman like Faith can cast aside her fear and talk honestly about something she cared about that affected her, why can’t we get our clients to cast aside theirs and talk honestly about things that affect them and their audiences?